Performance art is theatrical. There is an imagined barrier that maintains distance between the art and the viewers. Participatory art, as opposed to strict performance art, involves the audience. There is no distinct separation or disconnect between the art and those experiencing it. This artistic genre has often been considered unnecessarily ironic, relying on the random decisions of self-absorbed artists.
“Part of participatory art depends on how you present it. If you say ‘performance art’ to people, not many will think they’ll like it. They automatically think someone is getting naked or will be screaming and throwing chocolate on themselves and, while that is totally valid, it is important for people to feel like it’s open to them and they don’t need to have a very specific preference to be able to enjoy it,” says local artist Julia Barbosa Landois.
“I need some kind of interaction with the audience to feel like it’s really participatory. Whether that be talking or eye contact—just some kind of physical proximity,” Landois points out. “There’s also some kind of unpredictability because you don’t know what the audience is going to be bringing, what they are going to say or how they are going to react. I think that is something really exciting about making participatory work.”
Landois creates a variety of art ranging from strictly performative to highly participatory interactions. She recently exhibited a piece entitled Congratulations where she served viewers cake filled with such items as plastic babies, safety pins, rings, lace, pacifiers, rosaries, praying hands, metal coins, ribbon, and a large plastic horse-drawn carriage in reference to the gender-specific rituals of baby and bridal showers.
Hills Snyder, another San Antonio artist, utilizes performance and participatory art methods “whenever it is appropriate for a given situation.” His 2005 Book of the Dead project allowed visitors to journey through a series of constructed rooms that offered a mirror into their own inner landscapes. Each received a number representing his or her page in the “Book of the Dead” and was greeted by Snyder as the “intoxicating angel” upon entering the final living room.
“All art is participatory,” Snyder says. “People have to come up and move around even stationary work, observing it. Observation is a very interesting concept. You can think of it as being passive or creative.”
The lack of understanding and interest concerning this genre of work directly relates to lack of exposure and public involvement. Landois suggests visiting local galleries with low foot traffic because they are more likely to support performance/participatory artists than more commercial galleries that need physical art to sell.